February 6, 1862: Surrender of Fort Henry

Monday, February 6, AD 2012

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,

Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,

And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.

Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,

Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,

Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,

Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service

And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army

Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.

Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,

Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,

The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,

Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh

With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,

And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting

From winter and certain memories. 

It didn’t take much. A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue

And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.

Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,

Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far

Though he worked hard and was honest.

A middle-aged clerk,

A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,

Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,

Offering them such service as he could give

And saying he thought that he was fit to command

As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.

So many letters come to a War Department,

One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–

Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,

A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;

A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,

Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;

And then the frozen February gale

Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,

The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–

“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.

                                                                                                                                     Stephen Vincent Benet

The taking of Fort Henry by Ulysses S. Grant on February 6, 1862, was important for a number of reasons:

1.  It opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and transports down through northern Alabama, effectively allowing the Union to outflank  Confederate

defenses in Memphis and  throughout eastern Tennessee.

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13 Responses to February 6, 1862: Surrender of Fort Henry

  • Was that fort also known as Fort Hood? My American History on Parade calendar names it “Hood.”

    It was the first major Federal victory in the war of northern aggression.

  • I do not believe so T.Shaw. It was named after Senator Gustavus Adolphus Henry of Tennessee. You are correct that it was a major victory in the Glorious Northern Crusade for Union and Liberty.

  • It seems my 2012 “American History on Parade” calaendar is in error. I will need to keep that in mind.

  • My copy of the Patriot’s Almanac made the same “Fort Hood” mistake yesterday. I corrected it before I read it to the kids. It also calls it the first “major victory.”

    Fort Hood was built and named after the War for the Union had concluded.

    Hood was a brave man–and a better soldier than he gets credit for, at least during the Atlanta campaign. Peachtree Creek was a near-run thing.

    But I can’t understand the neglect of other figures instead of him–George Thomas (speaking of Peachtree Creek), for example. Surely he deserves a military installation named after him.

    Much more so than that vindictive ditherer and near-incompetent Bragg.

  • Pap Thomas and Bragg, Dale, definitely are the two ends of military competency in the Civil War. The War might well have had a different outcome if Thomas had gone with Virginia and ended up commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

  • Thomas was a great general, and very underappreciated. Betrayed his native Virginia and took up arms against her, so that even some of his family would never speak to him again. I’d like to think it was wisdom not to send him East, where his presence could have provided a sort of negative morale boost due to the contempt his countrymen had for him.
    As to Grant, he did well out west, but when he came east, he earned, I think, the judgment made of him by Winston Churchill: “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” And so, with respect to Grant and his overland campaign, Churchill called his strategy “the negation of generalship.”
    But in his early wins in the west, he showed himself to be a competent, agressive leader, which the Union cause desparately needed.

  • I am a Churchill man to the bone, but his courtly sympathies were showing in that assessment of

    Grant’s lack of spectacular success in the eastern theatre is due to two things–1. Lee, and 2., the fact he did not take direct control of the Army of the Potomac. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the competent Meade, apart from excessive caution, but that extra layer of decisionmaking added unnecessary friction. This was especially true with the Cold Harbor horror.

    It’s also safe to say that Lee also lacked spectacular success facing Grant. The field of battle in Northern Virginia did not permit spectacular manuevers.

    The war in the East was decided after the Wilderness, when Grant gave the order to move south. Lee threw his best haymaker, and Grant kept on coming. Unlike McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, etc.

    As to Thomas, it is one of the minor tragedies of history that he ordered his papers to be burnt upon his death, and his beloved wife faithfully carried out that order. We have no picture of the inner man and his struggle over secession. It seems to have come down to what oaths men considered binding, and against whom they could draw their swords.

    For the significant–likely decisive–number of Southern Unionists like Thomas, they could not draw their swords against the Union, which itself would have constituted a betrayal.

  • “…that assessment of Grant’s generalship. He admired Lee greatly.”

    My goodness, maybe I shouldn’t start blogging again if that’s what’s going to happen to my thought processes. [Scare quotes around the word thought.]

  • I really appreciate learning about the history in these posts. It is very interesting and informative, especially now, that America may be heading towards another civil war against a grotesque form of totalitarianism. Thank you Donald McClarey and others. Mary De Voe

  • Lee was only hobbled by a lack of troops at that late time in the war. The opposite of Grant,he was a master of manuever, as Chancellorsville demonstrated, in the same area of Virginia as the beginning of the overland campaign. Outnumbered 2-1, despite continually inflicting twice the casualties on Grant as the ANV suffered, Lee could not replace his men, like Grant could. Grant knew this, and decided to simply spend his men’s lives by staying engaged with Lee, rather than attempting to defeat him or interpose between him and Richmond by manuever.

    As it was, there were at least two occasions I can think of where Lee came mighty close to inflicting what might have been a fatal blow to the AOP during the overland campaign.

    Cold Harbor was Grant’s responsibility, as he manfully acknowledged. He had been hoping for months that Lee and the ANV were demoralized and ready to crack. Cold Harbor disillusioned him of that idea.

  • Grant knew this, and decided to simply spend his men’s lives by staying engaged with Lee, rather than attempting to defeat him or interpose between him and Richmond by manuever.

    Except that it’s not true–Grant did by swinging around to Petersburg, which was, for a brief time, undefended.

    Yes, Lee could have defeated the Union at the North Anna–with the army of 1863. But he had no lieutenant who understood him implicitly, as Jackson and Longstreet did. There’s a reason he couldn’t manuever as well by that point–the ANV wasn’t the same army, and not solely because of the Overland Campaign. The losses had been piling up for a couple of years by that point, and the relative advantage in leadership had been worn away.

    Grant came within a hair of crushing the ANV with Hancock’s assault at the Wilderness. But, leaving aside the relative merits of the commanders, there was a reason armies were (with one exception) not destroyed during the War. It was extremely hard to do.

    Finally, Grant’s strategy was extremely good–force the Confederates to fight at multiple points in Virginia, and keep them from shifting forces between east and west. If he had had two non-incompetents instead of Butler and Sigel, things might have ended much sooner.

  • Gordon found the Union right open at the Wilderness, and a strong strike against it would likely have rolled up the federal right. Delay unfortunately resulted in a loss of daylight to complete the maneuver.

    Grant crossed the James finally because he realized at Cold Harbor courtesy of 7,000 dead soldiers that his attrition strategy had no end in sight. He had stayed true to his pledge to fight it out along the overland front all summer, and had certainly bled Lee, but at a fearsome price of his double the losses of his own men.

    His delay in striking at Petersburg, which was open for a brief window, guaranteed months of further bloody attrition until Sheridan finally flanked the ANV, stretched thin as paper, at Five Forks.

  • Of course, if Grant had led the AOP in 1862 on the Penninsula, the war likely would have ended that year with the capture of Richmond… imagine how an early federal victory would have resulted in a much different post-war outcome.